This is the latest edition of our column that excavates the origins of public figures’ factually dubious comments. We explain what their claims are referring to, the evidence (or lack thereof) behind them and where they sprang from in the first place.
Who said what …
A few weeks ago, Breitbart News — the right-wing, hyperpartisan news site formerly run by Steve Bannon — published a truly galaxy brain column. Editor-at-large John Nolte argued that Democrats have been promoting the COVID-19 vaccine not to save lives but instead to trick Republican voters into not getting the jab. Nolte’s theory concluded that this, in turn, would lead to unvaccinated Republicans getting sick and dying from COVID-19, ultimately helping Democrats electorally.
Nolte claimed that liberals, in a sinister application of reverse psychology, knew that aggressively pushing the vaccine would lead those on the right to resist, putting them at greater risk for severe infection or death. “In a country where elections are decided on razor-thin margins, does it not benefit one side if their opponents simply drop dead?” Nolte wrote. He then said that the real way to stick it to liberals would be to embrace the “Trump Vaccine” for the life-saving modern miracle that it is.
Sometimes flawed logic can still lead you to the correct conclusion.
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Some background …
Nolte’s take has emerged from the toxic politicization of the pandemic in the U.S. Since the COVID-19 vaccine rollout began in the U.S, there has been a partisan gap in vaccination rates. When comparing the rate of fully vaccinated people living in counties that voted for Trump in 2020 with those in counties that voted for Biden, blue counties had a higher vaccination rate by 12.9 percentage points, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Similarly, a Morning Consult poll has shown that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say they are unsure of whether they will get the vaccine. Republicans are also more likely to say they do not plan on getting vaccinated, according to that same poll. And it’s true that more right-leaning areas of the country are seeing more deaths from COVID-19, too: a recent New York Times analysis showed states with some of the highest 2020 vote share for Trump also have the highest death rates.
These differences in vaccination rates and COVID-19 death rates can be attributed to a few factors, including misinformation online and the erosion of trust in institutions such as the medical system and the media over the past few years. It can also be partly attributed to the rhetoric from Republican leaders and figures on the right, especially when you consider that similar partisan gaps have not been seen in other countries.
There is no evidence that those who have encouraged Americans to get vaccinated secretly hoped they would do the opposite.
Where the comment came from …
While the Brietbart column’s argument may seem unhinged, Nolte is in fact tapping into a number of right-wing tropes. Conspiratorial thinking has become a habit on the right — think the Big Lie or QAnon — so proposing a conspiracy to explain Republicans’ low vaccination rates may not be anathema for many of Nolte’s readers. Similarly, allegations of Democrats or leftists running false flag operations — where the responsible party for an event makes it look like another party is in fact behind the act — are common among the far-right. Many have claimed, for example, that the rioters who broke into the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 were actually members of antifa disguised to look like Trump supporters in order to make the right look bad.
The notion that politicians may be using reverse psychology when referencing the vaccine is also familiar to many on the right, albeit inverted from Nolte’s presentation of it. Those who oppose the vaccine — particularly those who incorrectly believe it to be harmful — have been surprised to hear former President Donald Trump promote it, and reverse psychology has been a useful explanation for his seeming deviation from their worldview. These theories claim that Trump’s encouragement of vaccinations would make the vaccine less appealing to anti-Trump voters, while arguing that those who support Trump are wise enough to “do their own research” and avoid it despite his recommendation.
“As far as him promoting it, my thought is [he is using] reverse psychology for the sheep with [Trump Derangement Syndrome] [who] will automatically just do the opposite of what he says,” one Telegram user wrote in a QAnon chat group. “What if Trump is promoting the vaccine to get the ‘Never’ Trumpers to rethink their decision,” wrote another in the same chat. “Anything he promotes they will do the reverse. He must know that those of us that are aware of the real and apparent dangers will NOT get it, even with his endorsement.”
Nolte also specifically tapped into another American tension: As the partisan gap persists, some on the left have shifted from encouraging those on the right to get vaccinated, to getting frustrated and angry that they still haven’t. This has manifested in sometimes flippant, sometimes cruel reactions to the high rates of infection and death among unvaccinated Americans. Nolte highlighted Howard Stern, who recently suggested on his radio show that unvaccinated individuals who become sick should be denied medical care. Stern also said it was “funny” that some conservative radio hosts who spoke out against the vaccine later died of COVID-19. There’s also the r/HermanCainAward subreddit, named after the Republican politician who died of COVID-19 in 2020, a group with 343,000 members that exists exclusively to mock people who expressed anti-vaccine views and later died of COVID-19.
Of course, if Nolte’s column convinces some vaccine-resisters to get the shot, one might argue that the end justifies the means. But so far the response to the column on the right hasn’t been positive. On Breitbart’s Facebook post sharing the column, many commenters rejected the argument, noting that their personal motivations for not getting vaccinated had nothing to do with what Democrats said, and pointing out that some unvaccinated Americans are on the left. “This is a stupid take. You have clearly bought into the democrat talking point that it’s only republicans not getting vaccinated when the reality is that people across the board are not getting vaccinated,” one Facebook user commented. Similar sentiments were shared on Telegram and the pro-Trump message board patriots.win. “Me not getting the Vax has absolutely nothing to do with what the left is saying!” one user wrote in a QAnon Telegram group. Another user in the same group noted: “But didn’t Trump get his vax? It isn’t about Trump, it’s about our personal health.”
Using conspiratorial thinking to bring conspiracy theorists back to reality may not be the most effective tactic after all. As one Telegram user put it: “Sounds like they’re trying to use reverse psychology by saying they are already using reverse psychology.”